He once inspired awe

Tonight, we burn the king of straw

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time; his writing on the Balkans, in particular, strikes me as not only obstinately self-deluded but actively poisonous. Francis Wheen, Oliver Kamm and David Aaronovitch (a fairly unlovely troika, I admit) have now published a devastating case against Chomsky, focusing in particular on the Srebrenica massacre. They demonstrate conclusively that Diana Johnstone, a writer commended by Chomsky, systematically minimises and downplays the massacre, using an armoury of devices familiar to any student of Holocaust denial. They also show that Chomsky’s commendation of Johnstone’s work specifically and emphatically endorses its factual content, rather than being based on a ‘free speech defence’.

If you’ve been inclined to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt – or to dismiss him and Kamm as equal and opposite obsessives who deserve each other – you should read this now.

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time, but I’ve always assumed that his eminence in linguistics was unchallenged; I’ve certainly never felt I had the academic chops to challenge it. Fortunately not everyone is so timid. Thanks to Stuart and Dave, I’ve recently become aware of Chris Knight’s critique of Chomsky the linguist. Knight, who has nothing but respect for Chomsky as a political activist, traces the tangled evolution of Chomsky’s linguistics and finds it wanting. More, he argues that it is shaped by the twin imperatives offered by Chomsky’s institutional background (military-funded computing) and by an anarchist mistrust of social science. The result is that, as a linguist, Chomsky is driven to positions of Cartesian rationalism, biological determinism and psychological individualism: we have language because we are the kind of animal that we are; we are that kind of animal because at some unknowable point we just, mysteriously, became that kind of animal; and nothing about how we interact with one another in society has, or has ever had, any bearing on the question. Needless to say, Knight finds this an extremely unsatisfactory account of human nature. This essay (also published in this expanded version (PDF)) is well worth reading, if only for some extraordinary passages of peevish circular logic from Chomsky on the subject of the social sciences (“I don’t think they’ve ever made any great breakthroughs, so they can’t have done, or I would have heard of them…”).

Smash your idols, kids! (Only not my idols, all right? I’ll deal with them myself. Later.)


  1. alice
    Posted 25 March 2006 at 22:50 | Permalink | Reply

    My academic training is in linguistics. As an undergraduate, I was taught (mostly) by scholars who were “left behind” in the Chomskyan revolution. They referred, dismissively, to “the boys on the River Charles”. Naturally, my classmates and I read everything we could by Chomsky, and thought, if we couldn’t make sense of the logic, that the fault was with us.

    My graduate training was more main-stream. But, I gradually realized that the Chomskyan paradigm is built on sand (not to mention a flawed understanding of how Science operates). Chomsky hypothesizes a certain type of cognitive underpinning for language that is totally inconsistent with what cognitive scientists know about how the brain operates and is organized. It’s one thing not to want to muck around with neurons. It’s altogether another thing to reject—or worse, to ignore—the established findings of scholars who don’t share your particular scientific interests.

    At a job talk, I once characterized Chomskyan linguistics as being characterized by an unfortunate melding of Talmudic argument from hypotheticals with Aristotelian logic (by which all possible conclusions follow from a false antecedent). I got the job (and a few snickers from the audience).

  2. Ed
    Posted 27 March 2006 at 18:10 | Permalink | Reply

    “If you’ve been inclined to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt – or to dismiss him and Kamm as equal and opposite obsessives who deserve each other”

    What about if you have a tendency to dismiss Kamm as smug faced, warmongering, phrase-mongering, precious, narcissistic, right wing (with the temerity, ludicrously, to describe himself as on the left), investment banking, Tory voting, posturing, neo-liberal, B52 worshipping, dishonest, privileged-boy-on-the-make-in the media, fuckfaced shithead?

  3. Phil
    Posted 27 March 2006 at 20:35 | Permalink | Reply

    Ed – I don’t agree with Kamm about much. In fact I’m not sure I agree with Kamm about anything, except Chomsky. But he’s right about Chomsky.

  4. Chris Knight
    Posted 28 March 2006 at 10:19 | Permalink | Reply

    I agree with Ed about Kamm. Nicely put.

  5. Phil
    Posted 28 March 2006 at 10:44 | Permalink | Reply

    Fair enough, Chris, but beside the point. I’m not talking about what he stands for or represents – which is pretty odious – but about his critique of Chomsky. If you haven’t read it, please do.

  6. Ed
    Posted 28 March 2006 at 18:44 | Permalink | Reply

    Chomsky may be a silly man in some ways. I don’t know very much about this particular debate. It’s entirely possible that he is wrong about it. I would just be very surprised if Kamm was right – this is a man who spends his free time attacking the left while claiming to belong to the real/decent(?) portion of it. He may know a lot about shifting huge amounts of fictitious capital around the financial markets on behalf of very rich people, but he knows fuck all about left wing theory. The man is a smug bastard, comfortably attached to the status quo and whose ‘leftism’ consists of a zealous loyalty to Queen, parliament, constitution and established property rights while being in favour, perhaps, of a little bit of redistribution to the plebs.

    Sorry, I’ve just gone off on one about Kamm again. What I mean to say is that in the light of all that we know about him, it seems to be a bad idea to agree with him. 1stly because Kamm’s argument with Chomsky is motivated by an obsessional hatred of a prominent left-winger simply because he is a prominent left winger. 2ndly, because he just should not be encouraged.

  7. Phil
    Posted 28 March 2006 at 19:50 | Permalink | Reply

    it’s a bad idea to agree with him

    Not if he’s right. Speaking as a libertarian socialist, I’d much rather agree with someone like Chomsky than with someone like Kamm. But Kamm’s case against Chomsky is good. You might agree if you read it, I don’t know.

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